Summary:

More capable smartphones and tablets, combined with a growing number of online video services are heavily increasing mobile media consumption: Limelight’s data shows a 600-percent jump from the past year and that’s a bad sign for those hoping unlimited data plans will stick around.

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Mobile device owners are consuming media on the go in huge numbers according to Limelight Networks. Tuesday, the content delivery company shared data from its network that shows a 600 percent increase in mobile media requests for the first five months of 2011, as compared to the same period last year. The growing number of advanced handsets sold (more than 1 in 2 U.S. phones sold is now a smartphone), combined with more video network choices and increasingly capable hardware, is driving mobile media consumption higher. And that’s another nail in the coffin for those craving unlimited mobile broadband plans.

As a simple point of comparison, Limelight saw roughly 6 million mobile media requests in May 2010. Last month, however, the network experienced more than 30 million such requests. Some of the growth is surely reflected in a larger potential audience: Smartphones began outpacing the sales of personal computers early this year as consumers satisfy their consumption needs on smaller devices. Tablet sales, led by the iPad, are in the tens of millions. And with the larger displays offered on tablets, it’s no surprise the devices are ideal for media consumption.

Also adding to the rising mobile media trend are the growing number of video content options available. Netflix, for example, finally arrived on the popular Google Android platform  last month, although it’s not yet supported on all Android phones. Couple that with new mobile video solutions from Squrl, as well as old favorites such as YouTube and Facebook, and it’s clear mobile video is heating up the small screen.

Also helping to drive increased video consumption are smartphones with faster processors and larger, higher resolution displays. New dual-core chips from Qualcomm, Nvidia, Texas Instruments and others can support 1080p HD playback, even if scaled down on a smartphone screen. But larger screens are trending too, as a majority of the newest mid- to high-end phones have displays of  four inches or more. That’s part of the reason I still expect Apple to consider a 4-inch iPhone model in the future. At such a small size, its celebrated Retina Display pixel density wouldn’t be compromised much even if the screen keeps the same resolution as the current model, but it would offer a larger viewing experience.

Services and hardware aside, the recipe for mobile media consumption isn’t complete without one final ingredient: a network. And more media consumption away from the desktop means more mobile bandwidth at a time where network operators claim they’re already struggling to meet demand. Wi-Fi is a common offload solution for carriers and consumers alike, but like the limited range such infrastructure provides, Wi-Fi can only take mobile media so far. I’d expect data from Limelight and other media providers to be used as further justification by carriers to move away from unlimited mobile broadband in favor of tiered data plans.

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